“As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
Those words may be among the most familiar, most comforting, in all of scripture.
It can be tempting to sentimentalize this passage. We shouldn’t. The fact is: it should make all of us lose sleep at night.
Because, in this passage, Jesus throws down the gauntlet.
What Jesus commands here is not only that we love one another, but that we love one another as he loves us.
Let that sink in. And then think of the implications. He is asking us to love radically. Totally. Unconditionally. He is asking us —no, commanding us—to love one another as he loved his apostles. To love the doubter, Thomas. To love the denier, Peter. To love, even, the betrayer, Judas. He is telling us to love with a fierceness and a tenderness and a compassion that can even lead, if we love enough, to the cross.
I think most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have to admit that we continually fall short of loving people like that.
I think most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have to admit that we continually fall short of even liking people like that.
And so this gospel is placed before us not to make us comfortable, but to make us uncomfortable.
It is an indictment—and a challenge.
How can we love one another as Jesus loves?
Put simply: I think it demands a kind of martyrdom. A death of self, of selfishness, of self-interest.
But martyrdom comes in different ways, in a thousand small but significant gestures that convey the love of Christ.
Maybe it is the martyrdom of silence – refraining, just once, from calling the guy in the next cubicle at work an idiot.
Maybe it is the martyrdom of patience – spending a half hour standing in line at the DMV and being grateful that at least you can stand.
Maybe it is the martyrdom of time – time spent listening to someone no one else will listen to, giving attention, offering support or friendship or consolation.
Maybe it is the martyrdom of forgiveness – letting go of rage or vengeance or hate, with Christ’s words echoing in our heart: “As I have loved you so you also should love one another.”
For many of us, that may be the most painful, most challenging martyrdom of all.
Last week, Michael Rogers, a Jesuit scholastic soon to be ordained a priest, posted on his Facebook page a personal letter to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old accused of the terror attack in Boston.
“Dear Dzhokhar,” he began, “you don’t know me, but you tried to kill my family.”
Michael Rogers’ brother and sister-in-law were both running the marathon. His parents were just a few feet from the bomb blast. They were unhurt. But one of his students was injured by shrapnel.
Yet, Michael Rogers wrote in his letter that he cannot bring himself to hate the man who caused that because, as he put it, there has already been too much hate in Boston.
“Dear Dzhokhar,” he wrote, “I will pray for you. When the first pitch is thrown on Patriots Day at Fenway, I will pray that somehow you will know joy…the joy that makes us fully human and offers the possibility of real repentance…the joy that Red Sox baseball fills me with every year.”
And he continued: “I will pray for you next year when the first shot is fired in the annual reenactment of the battle of Lexington and Concord, that you will come to know that peace and love are the only ways in which the world will ever be changed.”
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.
Or, as Christ put it another time and as he showed us on the cross: Love your enemies. Pray for your persecutors.
Let go of the human desire for retribution and rage. Make hate become a martyr.
Because there lies the way to love.
It is our great call—yours and mine. The call not only to love but to love as Christ. The Christ who knew the nails and thorns of Good Friday, but who also knew the welcoming dawn of Easter; the Christ who gave not only his life, but who also gave us his body and blood in the Eucharist that we are about to share. In that ongoing sacrifice is an enduring reminder of his love, a love that “bears all things, and hopes all things.” It is a love, as St. Paul put it, that never fails.
It is a love that serves as the great model to us all.
This weekend’s gospel is not a Hallmark greeting card. It’s not a sentimental gift. It is an audacious challenge— from Christ to his disciples, from God to us.
Love one another, he says. But don’t just love.
Love as I do.
It’s a tall order.
How can we begin to fulfill it?